29 October 1998
‘MAFF ignored chance to beat TB menace’
By Johann Tasker
GOVERNMENT scientists have conducted secret tests into tuberculosis in badgers because they believe that Ministry of Agriculture officials have deliberately overlooked a possible method of boosting immunity to the disease in cattle.
The scientists claim that MAFF is so keen to verify a link between TB in badgers and cattle that it has failed to fund research into potential methods of reducing on-farm outbreaks of the disease, which have cost farmers millions.
The ministry will spend an estimated £22 million this year on TB control, including research which involves the culling of 12,500 badgers over a five-year period to provide unambiguous evidence that the animals transmit the disease to cattle.
But the secret tests, which have received no Government funding, aim to discover whether TB outbreaks could be reduced by feeding badgers and cattle increased levels of trace elements. Trace elements are recognised as fundamental in improving animals resistance to disease.
A proposal to study the connection between trace elements and TB resistance was made as long ago as 1983. But MAFF officials rejected the suggestion, saying it was an avenue not worth pursuing.
Scientists have since independently analysed the trace element content of about 250 badger livers at MAFFs veterinary investigation centre at Sutton Bonnington. The test results have been kept locked away at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Surrey for the past year.
Despite repeated phone calls, MAFF officials refused to say whether the test findings would ever be made public. But one senior Government scientist said the results would have big implications if they proved positive.
“If you could show that animals with low levels of copper and selenium were more prone to TB, then it might be prudent to feed those animals supplementary levels of trace elements,” he said.
Critics said the revelation that MAFF had refused to look seriously at the trace-element theory went against pledges by junior farm minister Jeff Rooker to explore every opportunity to see how TB could be prevented in cattle.
“This is almost as if MAFF is a secret society,” said Bill Jordan, a retired vet who works for the conservation group Care for the Wild International (CWI). “If they really want to get to the bottom of this and help the farmers, they really ought to pull out all the stops.”
Until that happens, CWI is raising money to fund its own study of on-farm trace element levels. The project is being coordinated by Chris Fairfax, a Dorset-based solicitor who runs the Countryside Protection Group.
“Were not saying that trace elements are the answer, but the theory should be looked at properly,” Mr Fairfax said. “Were now trying to find farmers willing to participate in trace-element trials on their land.”